ROSELAND — The tattoo covering Arthur Ray Jr.'s left arm represents a daily reminder of what the 25-year-old has overcome.
It's a message from the 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10, which concludes with the line: "For when I am weak, then I am strong."
Ray, a former standout lineman at Mount Carmel High School, got the tattoo in 2012 during his last semester at Michigan State after he had beaten bone cancer, gone under the knife for nine surgeries, hobbled on crutches for 25 months and somehow found his way back to the football field.
"The message touched me," said Ray, a Roseland native. "Having bone cancer was a perfect moment for me to grow and see who Arthur Ray was."
Justin Breen says football kept Arthur going through the tough times:
Last year, Ray got another tattoo on his left arm — a dove that he says symbolizes "new life."
For Ray, that phrase has many meanings. He has found a new football home at Fort Lewis College in picturesque Durango, Colorado, where the starting left tackle is hoping to complete his first full season since helping guide the Caravan to an IHSA state championship game in 2006. He's also striving to earn his second bachelor's degree — in exercise science-sports administration — after graduating from MSU with a bachelor's in communications in 2012.
"Arthur was a leader at Mount Carmel when he was a student-athlete, just as he is now," Caravan assistant coach David Lenti said. "His grit, determination, and never-quit attitude inspires all of us in the Mount Carmel community."
And Ray is distributing his message along the way as CEO of "Arayofhope73" — his public speaking company.
"I was literally broken down and rebuilt," Ray said. "It took awhile for me to embrace my new life, but I love it now. I enjoy spreading positive energy."
Everything was 'perfect," except it wasn't
Arthur Ray Jr. weighed only 4 pounds when he was born prematurely on May 26, 1989.
But he quickly grew into a man-child and then young adult, eating massive meals highlighted by the mac and cheese made by his mom, Adrian.
"As long as food was on the stove, he would eat all night long until I would tell him to stop," she said. "We never had leftovers, even now."
By his junior year at Mount Carmel, he stood at 6 feet, 3 inches and tipped the scales at about 300 pounds. In two starting seasons with the Caravan, his teams went 25-3, losing to Wheaton-Warrenville South in the 2006 Class 8A state championship game.
Thirty-some scholarship offers poured in. Ray was named all-state and all-America. It all culminated on Feb. 7, 2007 — National Signing Day — when Ray inked a full scholarship to Michigan State.
"Everything was perfect," Ray said.
Except it wasn't. During his senior year, Ray noticed a lump on his left shin. He thought nothing of it while playing, but even months after the state title defeat, the lump hadn't gone away.
A few weeks after he had signed to attend MSU, doctors at the University of Chicago Hospitals diagnosed the lump as a cancerous tumor. Ray would need months of chemotherapy immediately, followed by a 15-hour surgery at Rush University hospital on July 10, 2007, to remove the tumor, and then several more months of chemo.
"I was scared for my life, I was scared for my career," Ray said. "I was so confused. A lot of people were telling me to quit."
But Ray would not, despite nine surgeries, including one to remove his tibia for eight weeks to clean out an infection before it could be reinserted. By November 2007, he was cancer-free but still on crutches.
"Arthur never gave up hope. From day one, when he found out he had cancer, I remember putting my arms around him saying, 'You have to fight back for your life, and we are going to be here with you every step of the way,'" Adrian Ray said.
Ray wouldn't be able to walk unassisted until early 2010. While waiting to get back on his feet, he would watch hours of game tape or work out his upper body.
Ray stayed in East Lansing, Michigan, and finally got his chance to play during the 2011 season, when he suited up for three games, including a start against Youngstown State. That year, he received the Discover Orange Bowl/Football Writers Association of America Courage Award.
"He had doctors telling him he would never play football again, but I knew this was a major storm and the sun would shine again on his life," said Vonzell Scott, a Brother Rice graduate and Ray's best friend since childhood. "I believed in his recovery."
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio described Ray as "a living example to our football team on what you can do with a positive attitude and if you just continue to work, you can conquer all obstacles.”
“Arthur Ray has tremendous faith and was a role model for so many people in the Greater Lansing community in his fight against cancer," Dantonio said in an email. "He's made a difference in so many people's lives, I can't even begin to count, not just in our players' lives, but everybody who is around him, he makes life a little bit better.
"I told him oftentimes he saw life through a different lens, and that made a difference sometimes for him," Dantonio added. "He was much more mature than a normal college player because of the things that he had gone through in his life."
But other challenges loomed. By the start of the 2012 season, Ray had been passed on the depth chart by the next wave of talent. Instead of losing a year of eligibility, he went on the medically disqualified list.
After graduating, he still had two years of eligibility remaining. He chose Fort Lewis — an NCAA Division II program — on the recommendation of Jordan Benton, a former teammate at Michigan State who had transferred there. Ray got on a plane, drove to Durango — elevation: 6,512 feet — and signed a Letter of Intent the next day.
"It's different here. It's quiet," Ray said. "Being in Chicago and Michigan State, there's so much around you. Up here in Durango, there are mountains and beautiful scenery. I can just focus on my goal, and that's playing football."
'Everything you could ask for'
Ray started Fort Lewis' first six games last year but was back on crutches when he tore the meniscus in his right leg.
Ray said he's finally 100 percent and is pumped to finish a full campaign. Fort Lewis' media day was Monday. Training camp starts Wednesday, and the season opener is Sept. 6 at the University of California at Davis.
"Arthur is everything you could ask for: a good student, a great person, a leader on and off the field through his example of never giving up," said Fort Lewis head coach John L. Smith, who also helped recruit Ray to Michigan State when he was the head coach there.
Ray bench-presses 465 pounds. He said the cancer, surgeries, injuries and time off has actually made him a better, faster player.
His dream has always been to make an NFL roster, and Ray said he believes that can still happen.
"Art still wants to play football because he has the ability to compete at the highest level of football," said Benton, a former wide receiver/defensive back. "He will be successful at whatever it is he truly wants to do. Only time will tell how great he will be."
It's quite the cliche, but Ray takes things one day at a time. His experiences have taught him not to look too far ahead.
His short-term goals are to finish the season healthy, play to his abilities and lead Fort Lewis to victories. When he's not pumping iron or pancaking defensive opponents, Ray gives public speeches at banquets and schools, including his old stomping grounds at Mount Carmel and Gompers elementary when he's back home.
"When he speaks, it moves crowds," Benton said. "Life has thrown him so many curveballs, but every time, he has gotten up so much stronger."
For Ray, that is what matters most.
"I look at myself now, and no one would ever think I've been through what I've been through," he said. "I'm walking on my own two feet and stronger than I ever was."
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